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Mike Conway
IU School of Journalism
mtconway@indiana.edu
812-856-1371

Maria Elizabeth Grabe
Department of Telecommunications
mgrabe@indiana.edu
812-856-2460

George Vlahakis
IU Media Relations
gvlahaki@indiana.edu
812-855-0846

Last modified: Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Content analysis of O'Reilly's rhetoric finds spin to be a 'factor'

Commentator uses name-calling more than once every seven seconds in 'Talking Points Memo'

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 2, 2007

Editors" This study, published in the academic journal Journalism Studies, was conducted and released without any involvement of any special interest group. The researchers received no grant funding for this study. Additional data, charts and the full text of the study are available online at http://journalism.indiana.edu/papers/oreilly.html.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Bill O'Reilly may proclaim at the beginning of his program that viewers are entering the "No Spin Zone," but a new study by Indiana University media researchers found that the Fox News personality consistently paints certain people and groups as villains and others as victims to present the world, as he sees it, through political rhetoric.

The IU researchers found that O'Reilly called a person or a group a derogatory name once every 6.8 seconds, on average, or nearly nine times every minute during the editorials that open his program each night.

"It's obvious he's very big into calling people names, and he's very big into glittering generalities," said Mike Conway, assistant professor in the IU School of Journalism. "He's not very subtle. He's going to call people names, or he's going to paint something in a positive way, often without any real evidence to support that viewpoint."

Maria Elizabeth Grabe, associate professor of telecommunications, added, "If one digs further into O'Reilly's rhetoric, it becomes clear that he sets up a pretty simplistic battle between good and evil. Our analysis points to very specific groups and people presented as good and evil."

For their article in the spring issue of Journalism Studies, Conway, Grabe and Kevin Grieves, a doctoral student in journalism, studied six months worth, or 115 episodes, of O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo" editorials using propaganda analysis techniques made popular after World War I.

A 2005 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found that while 30 percent of Americans viewed Washington Post and Watergate reporter Bob Woodward as a journalist, 40 percent of respondents considered O'Reilly to be a journalist.

"We chose Bill O'Reilly because he has one of the most powerful political voices in the media today," Conway said. "But we wanted to get beyond the left versus the right finger-pointing, which seems to dominate most of the discussion of O'Reilly and other media pundits."

Grabe added, "The promo of his show as a No Spin Zone -- that's where he opened the door for us."

What the IU researchers found in their study, "Villains, Victims and Virtuous in Bill O'Reilly's 'No Spin Zone': Revisiting World War Propaganda Techniques," was that he was prone to inject fear into his commentaries and quick to resort to name-calling. He also frequently assigned roles or attributes -- such as "villians" or downright "evil" -- to people and groups.

Using analysis techniques first developed in the 1930s by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Conway, Grabe and Grieves found that O'Reilly employed six of the seven propaganda devices nearly 13 times each minute in his editorials. His editorials also are presented on his Web site and in his newspaper columns.

The seven propaganda devices include:

  • Name calling -- giving something a bad label to make the audience reject it without examining the evidence;
  • Glittering generalities -- the opposite of name calling;
  • Card stacking -- the selective use of facts and half-truths;
  • Bandwagon -- appeals to the desire, common to most of us, to follow the crowd;
  • Plain folks -- an attempt to convince an audience that they, and their ideas, are "of the people";
  • Transfer -- carries over the authority, sanction and prestige of something we respect or dispute to something the speaker would want us to accept; and
  • Testimonials -- involving a respected (or disrespected) person endorsing or rejecting an idea or person.

The same techniques were used during the late 1930s to study another prominent voice in a war-era, Father Charles Coughlin. His sermons evolved into a darker message of anti-Semitism and fascism, and he became a defender of Hitler and Mussolini. In this study, O'Reilly is a heavier and less-nuanced user of the propaganda devices than Coughlin.

Among the findings:

  • Fear was used in more than half (52.4 percent) of the commentaries, and O'Reilly almost never offered a resolution to the threat. For example, in a commentary on "left-wing" media unfairly criticizing Attorney Gen. Alberto Gonzales for his role in the Abu Ghraib scandal, O'Reilly considered this an example of America "slowly losing freedom and core values," and added, "So what can be done? Unfortunately, not much."
  • The researchers identified 22 groups of people that O'Reilly referenced in his commentaries, and while all 22 were described by O'Reilly as bad at some point, the people and groups most frequently labeled bad were the political left -- Americans as a group and the media (except those media considered by O'Reilly to be on the right).
  • Left-leaning media (21.6 percent) made up the largest portion of bad people/groups, and media without a clear political leaning was the second largest (12.2 percent). When it came to evil people and groups, illegal aliens (26.8 percent) and terrorists (21.4 percent) were the largest groups.
  • O'Reilly never presented the political left, politicians/government officials not associated with a political party, left-leaning media, illegal aliens, criminals and terrorists as victims. "Thus, politicians and media, particularly of the left-leaning persuasion, are in the company of illegal aliens, criminals, terrorists -- never vulnerable to villainous forces and undeserving of empathy," the authors concluded.
  • According to O'Reilly, victims are those who were unfairly judged (40.5 percent), hurt physically (25.3 percent), undermined when they should be supported (20.3 percent) and hurt by moral violations of others (10.1 percent). Americans, the U.S. military and the Bush administration were the top victims in the data set, accounting for 68.3 percent of all victims.
  • One of O'Reilly's common responses to charges of bias is to come up with one or two examples of "proof" that he is fair to all groups. For example, in October 2005, Dallas Morning News columnist Macarena Hernandez accused O'Reilly of treating the southern border "as the birth of all American ills." O'Reilly responded by showing a video clip in which he had called Mexican workers "good people." He called for a boycott of the newspaper if it did not retract Hernandez' column.

"Our results show a consistent pattern of O'Reilly casting non-Americans in a negative light. Both illegal aliens and foreigners were constructed as physical threats to the public and never featured in the role of victim or hero," the authors concluded.

An earlier version of the study won a top faculty award from the Journalism Studies Division of the International Communication Association.